Technical Communications
Loretta Hall
© August 1999

  • Introduction
  • Types of Documents
  • Planning a Document
  • Technical Content
  • Organizing the Information
  • Structuring the Document
  • The Writing Process
  • Unintended Consequences
  • Public Speaking
  • Conclusion

    A. Introduction

    It is just as important for traffic engineers to communicate in prose as it is for them to inform the driving public with signs, signals, and pavement markings. Engineers spend 20 to 40 percent of their time writing reports, letters, memos, and other documents. In addition, they may be called upon to speak to technical groups or public gatherings. Poorly prepared documents and speeches can result in misunderstandings, improper actions, loss of public or professional support, and/or legal liability.

    Good technical writing (and by extension, the content of an oral presentation) has ten essential characteristics (Ref. 1). It is

    1. Technically Accurate. Inaccurate statements tell readers that you were careless or lazy; they can destroy your credibility.

    2. Useful. Don't waste readers' time by including unnecessary information, even if you think it is interesting or entertaining.

    3. Concise. Mathematician and physicist Blaise Pascal once wrote to a friend, "I have made this a long letter because I haven't the time to make it shorter." Organizing your thoughts and choosing the most effective words take time, but they are essential tasks.

    4. Complete. Careful writing includes defining terms as needed, conveying factual information, and presenting enough analysis to make the information useful to the reader.

    5. Clear. The document must convey a single message that the reader can readily understand. In order to clearly convey this message, the writer must first decide or understand what it is.

    6. Consistent. Consistency is important not only for the information presented, but also for the manner of presentation. An alarming number of technical reports contain apparently random use of basics elements like capitalization, punctuation, and abbreviations. As Ref. 1 notes, "The trouble with being inconsistent is that you are automatically wrong at least some of the time."

    7. Correct in Spelling, Punctuation, and Grammar. Grammar and punctuation errors suggest to the reader that whoever wrote the document is either sloppy or uneducated; this, in turn, leads the reader to wonder about the correctness of the technical content of the document.

    8. Targeted. Before beginning to write, the writer should assess the technical competence and information needs of the intended readers.

    9. Well Organized. A logical structure leads readers through the material. Structural devices such as subsection titles and bulleted lists are also helpful.

    10. Interesting. If the document is boring, readers will stop reading or their attention will wander.

    B. Types of Documents

    Most of the documents engineers write fall into the broad categories of reports (long or short), correspondence (letters, memos, faxes, and e-mail), journal articles, and specialized documents (e.g., public announcements, specifications, and manuals). Organizations commonly expect their employees to follow format and structure guidelines for various document types. If your employer or publisher does not give you specific guidelines, check technical writing manuals like Refs. 1, 2, and 3.

    1. Reports. Formal reports should be written in the third person (i.e., sentence subjects are either nouns or pronouns like "he," "she," and "they"). Informal reports can be written in the first (using pronouns like "I" and "me") or second person (using "you"). In either case, keep in mind the general guidelines in Sec. A, above.

    2. Traditional Correspondence. Improve your letters and memos by following these tips:

    a. Use natural language. Avoid clichés and awkward, overly formal, or "impressive" language. Technical writing manuals offer many examples such as these:

    Rather than: Use:
    Enclosed please find Enclosed is
    I am forwarding herewith  I'm sending
    Awaiting your earliest reply, we remain Sincerely
    Per your inquiry of In response to your question
    Please don't hesitate to call  Please call me
    As per our conversation As we discussed
    The undersigned  I
    Above referenced (delete)

    b. Use positive language. Never write a letter or memo while you are angry; talk to someone about the situation so you can vent your anger, and then write a calm response. Use a neutral or positive tone; for example, "your letter stated that the necessary supplies were unavailable" is less provocative than "you claimed that the necessary supplies were unavailable."

    c. Keep the reader's needs and feelings in mind. Try to look at a situation as your reader would, and phrase things to address his or her point of view. For example, "the new report guidelines will save you time" is better than "I am sending you new report guidelines."

    3. Electronic Correspondence. E-mail and fax communication save time, but they present some problems.

    a. They are not private. Fax messages can be read by anyone who walks by the machine. E-mail is often forwarded to people who may not understand brief references or inside jokes.

    b. They are too quick and easy. Senders often don't think about them as carefully as they would when composing a letter or memo. Or they may respond to an unpleasant message before taking time to cool off.

    c. They tempt writers to forget about proper etiquette.

    (1) Don't forward e-mail to other third parties unless you are sure they want or need it.

    (2) If a series of e-mail messages has turned into an emotional battle, switch to the telephone or a face-to-face conversation so you can use things like a calm voice or facial expressions to ease tensions.

    (3) Never change a message from another person and then forward it to someone else so that it appears the original author wrote something he or she didn't.

    (4) Use the recipient's name in the message and sign it with yours. Clearly specify details like times and dates; the recipient may not read the message the same day you send it.

    (5) Use good grammar and form so your message conveys competence and professionalism. Don't type your message in all capital or all lower-case letters; such messages are hard to read, and they create the impression of shouting or lack of confidence, respectively.

    4. Specialized Documents. Fliers and newspaper announcements for public meetings require careful preparation to meet the readers' needs and to present a positive, professional image of the organizers. Uncluttered, well-labeled maps and a nontechnical tone are helpful. Ref. 1 presents specific guidelines for preparing manuals and specifications.

    C. Planning a Document

    Building a road involves more than sending out the paving crew, and writing involves more than putting words on paper. Time spent on creating a document should be allocated roughly as follows:

    Planning 20%
    Organizing 20%
    Writing 30%
    Editing and rewriting 30%

    The planning phase consists of four basic steps: (Ref. 3)

    1. Analyze the reader. Decide what information the reader(s) needs to get from the document. Assess the reader's knowledge base and level of technical proficiency.

    2. Analyze your purpose. Don't let yourself get by with thinking you want to "write about" a project or a problem. Figure out why you are writing about it. For example, is it to convince someone, create a record, request action or funding, or answer a request for information? If you don't figure out what you want to accomplish, you probably won't accomplish it.

    3. Analyze the writing situation. Is there any hostility involved, either on the part of the reader, your organization, or yourself? What format guidelines, governmental requirements, or professional standards must be followed?

    4. Gather information. Make sure it is accurate, relevant, and up to date. If possible, verify information by checking additional sources.

    D. The Technical Content

    Having the best information available isn't enough–you must also apply it correctly and present it accurately. Engineers tend to feel comfortable with the technical content of their documents; consequently, they proofread that material less diligently and overlook errors.

    1. Common technical errors. Ref. 4 lists the most common types of technical inaccuracies, including the following:

    a. miscount (e.g., writing "the four people: Smith, Jones, and Davis")

    b. conversion (e.g., using the wrong conversion factor)

    c. arithmetic (unit or number) (e.g., typing the wrong number or writing a customary English unit rather than the appropriate metric one)

    d. precision (e.g., calculating a value to a greater degree of precision than the data justify)

    e. numeric inconsistency (e.g., "the first study was done in 1994" on one page, and "we've been studying this for the past two years" on another page of a 1998 report)

    f. misrepresentation of data or bad data (e.g., "most of the accidents resulted from driver inattention" when 7 out of 15 did, or listing categories by percentages that don't add up to 100)

    g. cross-reference to wrong or nonexistent location (e.g., "See the site map on page 5 of this report" when the map is actually on page 6)

    h. numeric or alphabetic sequences (usually skipping a number or letter in the sequence)

    i. inconsistent information (e.g., "we base our design on stopping sight distance" on one page and "because the passing sight distance was inadequate, we revised the design" on another)

    j. factual error (One report included a statement about studying a New Mexico route "northward from the Arizona border" when the writer meant the Texas border. For other reasons, this document was entered into evidence in a legal proceeding. Anyone reading the document may wonder what other careless errors the writer made.)

    2. Other barriers to credibility. "If we, the trained and experienced professionals, lack credibility, decision-makers may follow their own wisdom or the direction of the most vocal interest groups. Such decisions may not be in the best interests of the constituency's mobility and safety." Ref. 5 goes on to describe the most common destroyers of credibility. For example, be sure you know what you are talking about, and don't pad the truth; any inconsistencies between your assumptions and observable facts are deadly. If an analyst on the opposing side of an issue reaches a different conclusion, be prepared to justify your assumptions and analysis.

    Readers will doubt the credibility of a document that is not logically organized, contains grammatical errors, or appears sloppy. In addition, certain choices of wording may raise doubts about the accuracy or reliability of the information in the document. For example:

    a. Using the word feel undermines the apparent professionalism of your results. Engineering is based on facts and analysis, not feelings. Instead, use words like "I am convinced" or "the analysis has shown."

    b. Inflated wording is another writing flaw that undermines credibility. Besides being hard to read, it can create the impression that the writer is trying to make something sound better than it is or cover up a real or perceived inadequacy. Here are some examples: (Ref. 6)

    (1) "The background information has been surveyed and organizational activities preparatory to initiation of the two component phases of the project being contemplated at this time have been instituted." Translation: "After a search of the literature, we have decided to attack the problem in two steps."

    (2) "Equipment in this category is especially advantageous in that it is easily adaptable for nontechnical personnel in field operations." Translation: "Untrained field workers will find this equipment easy to use."

    E. Organizing the Information

    To be effective, a document must be structurally sound. A document showing a clear, logical presentation of information is much more useful than one containing a random assortment of information and ideas. This means you must outline before you write. Do it any way you wish; no one will see your outline–but everyone will notice if you don't make one. If you modify your outline while you are writing, keep an eye on the overall picture to make sure the change doesn't weaken the total document.

    F. Structuring the Document

    "Research has demonstrated that comprehension and retention are controlled to a significant extent by the physical appearance of a document.... The layout of a report can make it dull, dense-looking, and hard on the eyes; or it can render a discussion with high technical density visually inviting, easy to absorb, and hard to forget." (Ref. 6)

    1. Basic design elements

    a. White space. A page packed full of text is difficult to read. Here are four ways to make it less intimidating:

    (1) Avoid narrow margins. Leave at least one inch on each edge of the page.

    (2) Consider carefully whether to use a ragged right margin. "Full justification" (like the format of most books) is easy with computers, and many writers think it makes their document look more professional. However, the subtle changes in spacing between letters can make fully justified text more tiring to read. Here are some issues to consider when making the justification decision:

    (a) readability. Although some studies have found little difference in readability between ragged right and fully justified text, one found that 70% of readers considered ragged right text easier to read. (Ref. 3)

    (b) desired image. Fully justified text appears more formal.

    (c) hyphenation problems. When using fully justified text, minimize excessive word spacing by using your word processor's automatic hyphenation option. But watch for problems like badly hyphenated words (e.g., therapist printed as the-rapist) and several consecutive lines that end with hyphens.)

    (3) Avoid lengthy paragraphs. If you have written a paragraph that is half a page long, see if you can divide it in half or shorten it.

    (4) Use bulleted or enumerated lists. (See below.)

    b. Informative headings. Besides introducing white space, informative headings guide the reader to specific types of information.

    c. Headers and footers. Include page numbers, document title or file reference, and date.

    d. Typographic devices. Because of their availability, there is a temptation to use too many of these devices or use exotic variations that detract from the document's appearance rather than improving it. However, the following devices are common:

    (1) font and size. Use something fairly common, in a size that is easy to read. Stick with one font throughout your document.

    (2) italics. This is more attractive than underlining words. Avoid using it for emphasis; it is better to choose your words so the emphasis comes from them. Use italics for

    (a) titles of books and periodicals (e.g., "The AASHTO Policy on Geometric Design of Highways and Streets recommends the following lane widths....")

    (b) words and phrases when they are discussed as words (e.g., "the word warrant means....")

    (3) boldface. Bold print helps emphasize headings. It can also be used effectively to highlight an important warning statement in the text.

    2. Lists. The simplest form of list is a sentence containing a sequence of three or more items, which are separated by commas. If one or more of the listed items contain commas, separate the items with semicolons (e.g., "Speed studies were conducted at this location on July 1, 1997; August 8, 1998; and September 3, 1999.").

    If the list is long, or if the individual elements of the list are lengthy or complex, it may be clearer to format the list vertically. The rules for introductory punctuation are rather obscure, so the safest rule of thumb is this: Introduce the list with a complete sentence followed by a colon. [Don't write "These are:" although you could write "These are the following:"]

    Format your list with these guidelines in mind:

    a. punctuation. It is not necessary to put any punctuation after each item in the list unless each item consists of one or more complete sentences.

    b. format. The list may be delineated with bullets, numbers, or letters. Use spacing and indentation that make the list easy to read.

    c. parallelism. The items in a list should all have the same grammatical construction. In other words, they should all be either complete sentences or fragments. Every item should begin with the same part of speech, in the same form (e.g., "write, read, and listen" or "writing, reading, and listening").

    3. Graphics. In technical documents and presentations, graphics are used to convey information, not merely to make the document attractive or give the audience something to look at other than the speaker. They must be designed to deliver the desired information clearly and conveniently.

    a. General tips

    (1) Make the graphic relevant to the text, but don't assume the relevance is obvious. In the text, tell the reader what to see in the illustration.

    (2) Make the graphic as simple and uncluttered as possible.

    (3) Give each graphic a caption (title) and a figure number. Figure titles are usually placed below the graphic.

    (4) If you have to turn a graphic sideways to make it fit on a page, print the caption with the same orientation as the graphic, but keep headers and footers (including page numbers) in the same orientation as the body of the document. Insert the page in your document so that the top of the illustration is on the left.

    b. Specific tips. Chap. 4 of Ref. 3 gives helpful guidelines for creating good drawings, maps, flowcharts, line graphs, pie charts, and bar charts.

    4. Tables. Organizing information into tables can make it easier to read and/or easier to compare. See Chap. 4 of Ref. 3 for useful guidelines.

    G. The Writing Process

    "For whatever reason, writing apparently does not come easily to a great many engineers, but then it comes easily to few writers, either. It is hard work, and problems in writing can be at least as difficult to solve in words as problems in engineering can be in equations." (Ref. 7)

    1. Effective writing. (For a more detailed discussion, see Ref. 1.)

    a. Use the active voice. In an active-voice sentence, the subject acts (Smith wrote the report), whereas in a passive-voice sentence, the subject is passively acted upon (the report was written). Although the passive voice is sometimes the best choice, it is often used as an evasion of responsibility, either for actions or for statements in the document.

    b. Delete words, sentences, and phrases that do not add to your meaning. A writer who is having trouble explaining something may try to solve the problem by pouring on more words; it takes more mental effort to stop and figure out how to explain the topic concisely. For example, rather than writing "the construction of new structures at the low-water crossings will provide a facility that improves the overall safety and level of service," write "the construction of new structures at the low-water crossings will improve the overall safety and level of service."

    c. Use specific and concrete terms rather than vague generalities. Improper use of etc. is a common way of introducing vague generalities. The word etc. (literally, and other things) should be used only when the reader can predict its meaning. For example, consider the sentence "several features such as safety barriers, noise walls, etc., will be constructed in the project for public safety and benefit." It is unclear what other features will be constructed. The phrase "such as" implies that only a few selected examples will be given; therefore, it is unnecessary to add etc.

    d. Keep ideas and sentence structure parallel. Lack of parallelism makes the following sentence confusing: "The proposal for the work must contain the complete design, provision for traffic control, show all new slope limits, and contain complete cost information." A better version is "the proposal for the work must contain the complete design, describe provisions for traffic control, show all new slope limits, and include complete cost information."

    e. Use an informal rather than a formal style. For example, rather than "the visual impact of the mitigation measures will not be visible from any residence or other building in the vicinity," write "the mitigation measures will not be visible from any residence or other building in the vicinity."

    2. Common writing mistakes. Some mistakes involve an inadequate knowledge of the rules of grammar, punctuation, or capitalization. Consult a writing manual to review the rules; Ref. 2 is free and convenient, and many dictionaries contain a section that summarizes the basic rules of writing. Other mistakes are introduced during the revision of a document. Moving, deleting, or adding words to a sentence can result in errors like sentence fragments, extra words, and disagreement of number between the verb and its subject or object.

    3. Word processing woes. Use your word processor's spell-check feature. But don't rely on it blindly; it will not catch some types of mistakes. For example, it won't think you made an error if you typed "medium" for "median," "steal" for "steel," "off ice" for "office," or "wave" for "waive."

    4. Proofreading. Proofread a document twice–once for logical coherence and technical content, and once for mechanics like punctuation, capitalization, grammar, and sentence fragments. Print out a copy of your document and proofread it; you will find errors you didn't notice on the computer screen. You are so familiar with what you wanted to say that you may read what you meant rather than what you wrote; ask a colleague to proofread your document, and return the favor.

    H. Unintended Consequences

    The Law of Unintended Consequences states that whatever we do, something unforeseen will result. The unanticipated result(s) may be either positive or negative. It's the negative ones that writers must watch out for. Remember that each document you write may be read by people other than the ones you intended it for, including an attorney who is involved in a lawsuit against you or your employer.

    When reviewing a document you have written, ask yourself the following questions: (Ref. 3)

    1. Are your facts accurate and do your graphics present data without distortion or bias?

    2. Have you differentiated clearly between fact and opinion? Good engineering judgement doesn't occur simply because the author is a professional engineer; consider your technical decisions carefully, and word your documents in a way that makes it clear that you have done so.

    3. Have you checked for unwise or potentially misleading word choices? For example, even if 90 percent of the local population affectionately refers to a certain location as "Dead Man's Curve," don't do so in your communications.

    4. Are your research sources reliable and appropriate for an unbiased presentation of data? Whenever you make (or imply) a factual statement, be sure you can back it up with valid documentation; don't rely on "common knowledge" or "conventional wisdom." For instance, if you write that "on the Interstate, large trucks travel at higher speeds than passenger cars," have data available in case someone challenges the truth of your statement. Indeed, as you check the facts before writing them, you may find that there are important limits of applicability that you must mention, or that the "fact" is actually somewhat different than you had thought.

    5. Is your information presented in a context that helps readers understand the implications of the facts?

    6. Have you included any potentially libelous statements or misrepresentations that could cause your firm or agency to lose its reputation or that could result in lawsuits?

    I. Public Speaking

    1. Public relations. William van Gelder's article "Public Relations and Program Implementation Methods" (Chap. 14 of Ref. 8) includes the following principles of public contact:

    a. Understand the other person's point of view. Don't react personally to his remarks, even if they take the form of personal attacks.

    b. Let the person tell his story. "The best medicine for angry citizens is to let them get things off their chests, without getting you upset!... You can count on some people not listening to you until they tell their story anyway."

    c. Learn to listen. "Don't give a solution until a clear-cut, mutually understood problem definition is agreed to."

    d. Speak their language. Anticipate the technical knowledge of your audience, and explain technical terms appropriately.

    e. Say it with respect. "Courtesy, respect, and consideration are all shown in little ways: a friendly tone of voice (but not a honeyed one); a manner that shows the person that he or she is considered worthy of respect and courtesy; a controlled volume to your voice."

    f. Make people feel important. Give each person your full attention while he or she is speaking. Try to use his or her name when responding.

    g. Be honest with yourself. "If you don't know the answers, refer the [person] elsewhere or admit that you don't know the answer. Don't make excuses and don't argue."

    h. Be presentable. "Sloppiness suggests a lack of interest in oneself and therefore a lack of interest in others."

    i. Know when to terminate an interview. "Don't lose the effectiveness of your discussion by letting it drag on. When you feel that the problem has been solved, you can courteously end the contact."

    2. Making a speech. Before a speech, you must prepare the content, the visual aids, and yourself. In addition to the following summary, see Ref. 9 for valuable advice.

    a. Preparing the material. Write out what you want to say, but don't memorize it. Use the written text as a guide for compiling a set of notes and speaking naturally about the topic. Minimize the introductory part of the speech; get quickly into the meaningful material. End on a strong note; the last part of the speech is what most listeners will remember.

    b. Preparing visual aids. Depending on the size of the audience, prepare flip charts, overhead transparencies, slides, or a computer-generated presentation. Make them uncluttered, with large, easy-to-read lettering. Follow the guidelines in Ref. 10. For example,

    (1) Limit the title to one line, and the entire visual to 6-7 lines of text.

    (2) Print your visual on 8½x11-inch paper and measure the text. The height of lowercase letters should be at least 5.6 mm (0.22 in).

    (3) Use a sans-serif typeface; it is less cluttered. (This is an example of a sans-serif font; the previous sentence is printed in a serif font–with little bars at the ends of the letters.)

    (4) Use contrasting colors with a purpose in mind, not merely for decoration. Colors can distinguish between various elements (like two or more lines on a graph) or signal continuity from one image to another by using the same color for a particular element. Too many colors in a single visual will reduce contrast and legibility; generally, use no more than four colors in each image.

    c. Preparing yourself. "Research indicates that listeners are influenced more strongly by their attitudes toward the speaker than by the information presented." (Ref. 3) Even though you may not feel confident, you can act confident. Ref. 3 continues with the following tips:

    (1) Rehearse. Practicing your delivery is essential. It helps you remember what you want to say and how you want to say it. It can help you recognize places in your talk where explanations or transitions are inadequate. And it helps you feel more confident when you make your presentation–you will be saying familiar things in a familiar order.

    (2) Use a strong voice. Take a deep breath before beginning, talk in a confident tone, speak slowly, and enunciate clearly. Even when using a microphone, it is important to speak in a strong voice, both so the audience can hear you and so you will appear confident.

    (3) Present a professional image. Dress appropriately for the occasion. Stand on both feet, and don't sway back and forth. Keep a relaxed, pleasant expression on your face. Consider not using a lectern even if one is available; it tends to create a barrier between the speaker and the audience, and it tempts speakers to lean on it. Don't sit on the edge of a table.

    (4) Use appropriate gestures. Be careful about using phony, staged gestures just to give your hands something to do. However, if a gesture comes naturally, such as holding up four fingers to illustrate how many alternative designs your team considered, go ahead and use that gesture.

    (5) Establish eye contact. As you speak, let your gaze wander around the audience. Make eye contact with a few people, but don't stare at them. This will help keep the audience involved while giving you feedback on their understanding of what you are saying.

    (6) Use written notes, but do it unobtrusively.

    (7) Practice ahead of time with any equipment you are going to be using so you are familiar with how it operates and certain that it is in working order.

    (8) If you are not sure exactly what a questioner means, rephrase the question and ask if that is what he or she wants to know. Pause for a moment before giving your answer; this allows you to collect your thoughts and also makes the questioner feel that the question was important enough to think about. Repeat the question into the microphone so the rest of the audience can hear it. Answer only the question that was asked–no more, no less. During your answer, establish eye contact with other audience members, not just the questioner.

    3. Legal testimony. Legal testimony (giving a deposition and/or appearing in court) is a special case of public speaking. Many of the ideas discussed above are relevant. Here are some additional suggestions:

    a. Before testifying, consult with your firm or agency's legal staff.

    b. Listen carefully to the question you are asked. If you aren't sure you understand exactly what the question is, ask for clarification. If you disagree with an assumption stated or implied in the question, say so. If you cannot answer the question without knowing (or assuming) additional details, say so. Answer the question truthfully and completely, but do not extend your answer beyond the scope of the question.

    c. If you don't know the answer to a question, admit it frankly. Don't guess or become defensive.

    d. If you are asked questions based on a graphic (e.g., a map or project plans), take time to orient yourself to the drawing before you answer the question. If there appears to be an error in the graphic that is relevant to the question you have been asked, mention that fact.

    e. Give your answers in clear, simple terms with a minimum of technical jargon. When you do use technical terms, explain their meaning.

    f. Remember that attorneys are just people who took different college courses than engineers.

    J. Conclusion

    "Writing is not called a discipline for nothing. It is tough, wearing, brain-racking work." (James E. Porter in Ref. 3) Don't let this quote discourage you; rather let it ease any sense of embarrassment you may have felt about not being able to effortlessly crank out letters and reports.


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    2. Writing Guidelines for Engineering and Science Students. May 1999; (August 1999).

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    4. Tarutz, Judith A. Technical Editing: The Practical Guide for Editors and Writers. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1992. 454 p.

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